While planning our adventures for 2018, Mona and I learned about an opportunity to go hiking and camping in Death Valley with Trail Mavens, which provides skills-based outdoor adventure trips for women. We booked a flight to Las Vegas and a rental car to drive from Sin City to one of the hottest places in the world. These next few posts will be about our adventures along the way.
We flew into Las Vegas early. While it was only supposed to take a couple hours from the airport to the Furnace Creek campground in Death Valley, I had seen a map online that would take us on a longer detour and pass by the ghost town in Rhyolite, Nevada. So I put a lot of padding into our travel schedule. The extra time was especially fortunate as we dealt with the usual delays from claiming our bags at the carousel (we checked bags to avoid explaining trekking poles to the TSA) to picking up our rental car.
Then came my first experience driving on I-15 past the Las Vegas Strip. Apparently signaling is not the norm when driving on the I-15. The average car, driving at least 20 miles over the speed limit, will thrust itself into the smallest opening between vehicles without warning and trust that other drivers will take whatever defensive maneuvers are necessary to avoid a collision. Then they slam on the breaks because they’ve reached yet another standstill traffic jam that comes at every exit along the Strip only to again accelerate like there’s a meteor headed towards the earth and they are the only one who can prevent global disaster. I’m surprised every Bruce Willis movie doesn’t include at least one scene about the traffic on I-15, just to heighten the dramatic tension.
Eventually we made it through the traffic and onto the two-lane desert highway that travels from Las Vegas. I was really looking forward to a long, quiet drive through the desert. But nature decided that our narrow escape from disaster in Las Vegas traffic would only be a prelude.
As they say in Western movies, there was a storm a’brewin. Specifically, an incredibly strong wind with nothing but desert sand to slow it down as it slammed into our rental car and forced me to keep both hands firmly on the wheel while I tried to keep the car narrowly in the lane. A cluster of dark, heavy clouds stayed overhead and followed us for mile after mile, never deviating from our journey to venture a little to the east or the west. They hung heavy overhead and accompanied us on our journey. We were travelling at 70 miles an hour and so were they.
On a few occasions, the clouds released a flurry of snowflakes. I kept turning to Mona to point them out and reminding her, “When I tell this story later, about how we drove through snow in the desert, you’re my witness. This actually happened.”
While there were clouds overhead, they had localized over our moving car and did nothing to block the glare of the sun. That was when I realized I had left my sunglasses in the trunk. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of a concern. We’d just pull over at the next stop so I could get them out. But there was no next stop. There was no shoulder along the narrow desert road and the one time I did try and pull off at an exit we realized we had stumbled along a trailer belonging to the Department of Homeland Security and opted to keep moving.
Just as my eyes were beginning to water from the strain, it appeared like a mirage (since we’re in the desert, I’m just going with that metaphor). A lime green building in the distance. In my best Invader Zim impression, I shouted, “Here! We stop here!” And I swerved into the parking lot.
My Invader Zim impression was surprisingly apt because we had arrived at the Area 51 Alien Center. It serves as a gas station and store with the Alien Cathouse Brothel conveniently located next door. (We decided to give the cathouse a miss.) After retrieving my sunglasses from the trunk, we went inside to use the restroom and peruse all variety of extraterrestrial wares.
There were the usual gas station finds of coffee and snacks, but also everything I could imagine putting an alien on and a few things I hadn’t. There were postcards, t-shirts, shot glasses, and posters. But also alien head vodka, which we passed on because I couldn’t be sure it was gluten-free. We settled for a photo shoot with the aliens as our souvenirs.
The storm clouds continued to linger over the Area 51 Alien Center as long as we did and we were entering into a stalemate as we looked over the same alien themed merchandise again and again. Would it move on? Or was it waiting for us so we could continue our journey in tandem?
Eventually, we gave up and hit the road so we could visit Rhyolite before our meeting time at the Furnace Creek campground. And we embarked, so did the dark storm clouds. They wouldn’t leave us until we reached Beatty.